Tag Archives: Schulhoff

VentiCordi Explores the Unusual

VentiCordi
Studzinsky Recital Hall, Bowdoin College
Oct. 29, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

While the musical avant garde set off in various directions, some rewarding and some not, many composers continued to write good, solid and interesting music in traditional forms, while also taking advantage of what Schoenberg called “the liberation of the dissonance.”

Last night’s concert by VentiCordi (wind and strings) at Bowdoin’s Studzinsky Hall, provided substantial proof of just how rewarding this style of music can be. All of the works were thoroughly enjoyable and some broke new ground with old tools, like St.-Saens. It is doubtful that anyone in the audience had heard these works before, but they were all readily accessible, beginning with a fine Trio for Flute, Oboe and Piano by British composer Madeleine Dring,(1923-1977) who wrote it for her husband.

It explores (very) close harmony between the woodwind instruments, and their subtle differences in timbre. One sometimes felt that the oboe became less “reedy” in close collaboration with the flute. It was given an outstanding performance by Bridget Convey, piano, Sarah Brady, flute and Kathleen McNerney, oboe.

McNerney appeared again, with noted double bass player William Blossom, in “Three Songs for Oboe and Double Bass, after poems by Pablo Neruda,” by Andrea Clearfield (b. 1960). The combination of instruments, as unusual as it is, was ideal for exploring the interplay of male and female as portrayed in Neruda’s erotic poems: “Body of a Woman,” “The Light Wraps You,” and “Every Day You Play.”

Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), who died of tuberculosis in a Nazi concentration camp, was once known for a relatively few works and the tragedy of a career cut short. Now that more of his compositions have been uncovered, he seems rather like Prokofiev, both daring and playful. As VentiCordi co-founder, violinist Dean Stein, said in opening remarks, Schulhoff wrote a piano piece consisting entirely of rests and indications, long before John Cage’s “4-33.”

His Concertino for Flute, Viola and Double Bass, played by Stein, Brady and Convey, sounded a bit like Prokofiev, without the Russian influences, especially in the comically quick-step Rondino that ends the work, in which the flautist switches to a piccolo for the final squeak.

I had heard the “Schilflieder” (Songs of the Reeds) for Oboe, Viola and Piano of August Klughardt (1847-1902) once before and remarked that it sounded like Brahms after one too many steins at the Red Hedgehog. Convey muted the piano part a bit this time, for a better balance of the parts, and a more lyrical, less bombastic, feel. No matter how interpreted, it is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of late Romanticism, full of Brahmsian harmonies and gentle melancholy.

The Trio for Flute, Violin and Piano (1958), that ended the program, was a virtuosic tour de force by Nino Rota, composer of the first two “Godfather” scores. Not very emotionally moving, without the images on the screen, but exciting throughout, concluding with a fantastically rapid Allegro vivace con spirito.

The program will be repeated Sunday, Nov. 6, at 2:00 pm. at Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland.

Vox Nova Composes a Symphony

Vox Nova
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
April 10, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Concerts are generally a mixed bag. Even those in which the musical selections and performances are all first rate lack a certain unity.

The recent performance of the Vox Nova chamber choir, with the DaPonte String Quartet, was as integrated as a three-movement symphony— musically, emotionally and thematically.

Vox Nova, under the direction of Shannon Chase, is a 32-voice choir devoted to performing works of the modern repertoire. Since its founding in 2009, it has gained a reputation for innovation and excellence. The DaPonte String Quartet is arguably the pre-eminent chamber music ensemble in Maine.

Add the fact that a string quartet is probably the finest and most flexible accompaniment for a choir, and you have a very enticing combination. When Chase selected three closely related works for last weekend’s concerts at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brunswick, she composed a symphony.

I enjoy Eric Whitacre’s writing for chorus, but his “Five Hebrew Love Songs,” sung in their original versions, is something special. The poems, by Hila Pitman, are short, pithy and as metaphysical as John Donne. In all of them, the music complements the words to create a whole that is greater than the sum of is parts.

Number five, “What snow! Like little dreams falling from the sky,” is incredibly good. The only other depiction that comes close is Debussy’s “The Snow Is Dancing,” from “The Children’s Corner.”

The second movement of the symphony featured the DaPonte alone, in Erwin Schulhoff’s First String Quartet, shipped to Russia for safe keeping before the composer’s death in a Nazi concentration camp. This is a work that the DaPonte has made its own, and every time they play it, something new is revealed.

In the dramatic performance on Sunday, the quartet seemed to echo the themes of the preceding work in its rapid alternation of joy and sorrow, ending with a ticking clock that eventually stops dead. Its beat, 60 on the metronome, is that of the human heart.

The final movement was “The Golden Harp,” written by Gwyneth Walker in 1999 specifically for SATB choir and string quartet. It comprises eight settings of poems by Rabindranath Tagore.

Walker said of the poems: All of the poetry selected for The Golden Harp is found in Tagore’s collection, Gitanjali, published in 1913. The poems span the course of the poet’s life. And the form of The Golden Harp mirrors this pattern. The work is divided into seven sections: triumphant at the beginning and close (#1 “Invocation” and #7 “Salutation”); more introspective in the interior sections (#2 “Beloved,” #3 “Prayer,” #5 “Thou Art” and #6 “My Tears of Sorrow”); and rising to a celebratory middle section (#4 “Light, My Light”).

The message of The Golden Harp is spiritual, and yet very close to the center of human emotions. Tagore’s poetry extols the beauty of the divine and the beauty of the soul within — the beloved as creator, the beloved as lover. “Thou art the sky and thou art the nest as well.”

The composer was in the audience, and in my opinion, could not have asked for a better reading of her work, whose emotional intensity at times was enough to bring audience members to tears. It brought the symphony full cycle, in its metaphysical concatenation of earthly and divine love. The depiction of divine light in setting IV more than equalled Whitacre’s musical vision of snow.

The poetry readings by Rose Horowitz were clear, well enunciated and emphasized all the right words, no mean feat for a senior at Mt. Ararat High School. And the purity of Anna Schwartzberg’s solo soprano part was heavenly. Bass Drew Albert was also first rate in the solo—“Mother, I shall weave a chain of pearls”– that makes the protagonist universal rather than male or female.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

DaPonte Solves Mozart Mystery

DaPonte String Quartet
Walpole Meeting House
Sept. 13, 2015

In each of its 19-year series of benefit concerts for the Walpole Meeting House, the DaPonte String Quartet includes a work written around the time that the meeting house was built—1772. Sunday night’s concert was no exception, beginning with the Mozart String Quartet in A Major K. 464.

The quartet, one of those dedicated to Haydn, has other connections to the New World. It is the first to incorporate Masonic musical symbolism in solidarity with Mozart’s brethren, who included revolutionaries such as Benjamin Franklin—for whom he composed music for the glass harmonica.

The program notes by DaPonte cellist Myles Jordan make a good case that Mozart may indeed have been poisoned, if not by his musical rival Salieri, then by other agents of the Austrian emperor, terrified of the popular young radical’s influence. (The Emperor’s sister, Marie Antoinette, had just lost her head to similar revolutionaries.) Not coincidentally, the DaPonte’s first winter series of concerts will be entitled “Enemies of the State.”

The quartet itself is long and “durch componiert” (thoroughly composed, perhaps too carefully.) It shows a more self-conscious effort at academic perfection than Mozart usually demonstrates. That said, it was a delight to hear in the fine acoustics of the old meeting house, lit only by flickering candles. Jordan excelled in the cello part, whose pizzicati gave the quartet its nickname of “The Drum.”

The Mozart was followed by the String Quartet No. 1 of Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) who died in a Nazi concentration camp. Written in 1924, the quartet nevertheless shows premonitions of the horror to come.

Its dance-like rhythms and folkish modes remind one of Smetana, but they are accompanied by strange wisps of sound, at the highest register, barely audible and often sul ponte (on the bridge) that make them seem like floating spirits, menacing or not. The final movement, with its ticking clock that eventually winds down, should be a cliche, but instead remains highly effective.

This is a wonderful work, that the DaPonte has made its own and recorded on a CD that captures the soundscape of the old meeting house.

The program concluded with a rousing performance of the Mendelssohn Quartet in D Major Opus 44, No. 1. Its mood swings are those of a young composer who has just married and also lost his beloved sister. It reminded me of the old quote: “I wanted to be a philosopher, but cheerfulness kept breaking out.”

The quartet eventually transforms itself into a violin concerto, which Ferdinand Liva, Jr. managed with aplomb.